nslayton asked: What are your tips for interviews and finding sources? That always seems to be the toughest part of journalism, and it's nothing they teach you in journalism school.

Hi there,

I’m going to be a bit all over the place with this one so hope you’ll bear with me. And the reason I’ll be a bit all over the place is because interviewing is really hard, and it requires different techniques depending on the purpose of the interview.

For example, your questions and interactions with a profile subject are going to be different than those you ask of people when reporting on public corruption. In the first, you’re trying to get at who this person is, what makes them tick why are they interesting. In the second, you’re investigating truth and lies, facts and figures and people who very much would like to dissemble and lead you astray.

Also, take into account your medium. How you interface with a subject for a two minute live broadcast is going to be very different than when writing a long form article.

Aside from the obvious (do your research, know your subject, identify what it is that you’re trying to get out of the interview), I want to focus a bit on the “softer” side of the process.

But first, lets start with something Chip Scanlan wrote at Poynter a few years back.

The dictionary defines a question as, “a sentence in an interrogative form, addressed to someone in order to get information in reply.” Notice that the root of the word is quest, which is a “search or pursuit made in order to find or obtain something.”

So let’s agree that interviews are formal encounters for asking questions, and the act of asking a question is part of a quest that we want to successfully complete.

Marc Pachter, who created and hosted an interview series for the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, gave a TED Talk once about the art of the empathetic interview. One important thing he had to say — and I think this holds true for all types of interviews — is that we need to break through people’s external shells:

But it comes down, in the end, to how do you get through all the barriers we have. All of us are public and private beings, and if all you’re going to get from the interviewee is their public self, there’s no point in it. It’s pre-programmed. It’s infomercial, and we all have infomercials about our lives. We know the great lines, we know the great moments, we know what we’re not going to share…

…I was trying to get them to say what they probably wanted to say, to break out of their own cocoon of the public self, and the more public they had been, the more entrenched that person, that outer person was. 

Towards the end of a 2000 profile with the American Journalism Review, John Sawatsky talks about how people who are interviewed a lot have a “message track.” Simply, stock answers to questions they’ve answered over and over again. If you follow sports, you see this all the time as athletes give rote, cliched answers about their latest successes and failures.

Call it a “shell” or a “message track” and you basically have the same thing: something you need to penetrate in order to get something worthwhile out on the other side. It can be difficult, of course.

Savvy sources are on to all of us, spinning back, all heat and no light, precisely because “we’re asking the wrong questions,” [Sawatsky] says. Under attack, journalists are conceding defeat to well-oiled propaganda machines without really understanding why they’re losing. In the last decade, media trainers have become such a growth industry, “you can even find them among small businessmen in Newfoundland,” Sawatsky says, teaching politicians and executives “how to run circles around journalists.”

Sawatsky, a former investigative journalist, has spent years exploring, understanding and formalizing interviewing techniques. ESPN hired him in 2004 to run training programs for its journalists and producers. As Jason Fry describes it, the sports network has become “his laboratory for deciphering the science of interviewing.”

Outlining Sawatsky’s method is too long for this space but if you click through to the links above, you’ll start finding great advice. Like the Smithsonian’s Marc Pachter though, there are empathetic techniques that draw answers out. These generally fall along the lines of asking “open” rather than “closed” yes-no questions, of listening rather than conversing, of asking a single question that the subject must answer as opposed to bundling a few together that lets the subject choose which path is easiest.

From the AJR profile:

Sawatsky applies the same discipline to interviews that E.B. White commended to writers—make every word tell. Using Sawatsky’s approach, the journalist is no longer a sparring partner but more like a therapist, a professional listener who leads the source down a path toward a goal, staying in control, giving up nothing.

Now, onto finding sources.

One of the hardest things about journalism programs is that you’re asked to report stories on all subjects under the sun. This week it’s science, next week it’s business, the following it’s local politics. Unless you’re very strange, you most likely don’t have an address book filled with sources you can talk to about these things.

So you start your research and start making some telephone calls and cobble together some sort of story that meets a deadline before rushing off to do it on a completely different topic all over again.

This gets easier once you’re on a beat. It’s a primary reason journalists develop beats. If local government is your thing you’ll start to know the players and know exactly who to call upon for particular stories.

A few things though: once you develop your source list, call on them just to check in. Make yourself familiar to them. Pick their brains about what they’re finding interesting and important. Some won’t take your call but many will. This can be a great lead generator. It will also lead to scoops because you’re proactively seeking things out rather than reactively following up on what you’ve read or heard reported elsewhere.

Second, never leave an interview without asking the subject for the names of people you should also talk to. Expand on this a bit though since you don’t just want an echo chamber. Ask them who disagrees with their thinking about the topic. For example, if we go back to local politics, ask who their adversaries are on a piece of legislation.

And finally, work your social networks, especially Twitter. Create lists of subject matter experts in the beat(s) you cover. Interact with them. It’s a great way to expand your source list as well as your overall understanding of whatever subjects you choose to cover.

Hope this helps. — Michael

Have a question? Ask away. Our inbox is open.